Landlords may penalize tenants for ‘killer’ water bills

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Spiking water bills and nuisance fees can so unsettle landlords in disadvantaged communities that they screen potential tenants more rigorously, threatening housing security for those who need it most, according to a new study.

The research, which followed nearly 60 owners of smaller properties in Cleveland for more than two years, shows that city policies that sanction landlords for tenant activity really wind up sanctioning the renters.

Tenants end up subject to tougher rental screenings, stereotyping, and harassment from landlords, and even eviction.

Water bill tizzy

“These policies inadvertently penalize the most vulnerable tenants and communities,” says author Meredith Greif, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University. “Some landlords’ tizzy over water bills and nuisance ordinances lead them to pursue business practices that burden the most marginalized tenants, making it harder for them to find and keep affordable housing.”

Between 2010 and 2015, cities on average raised the cost of water by 41 percent. Water utility costs have continued to go up, and landlords are responsible to pay city water bills for their property if tenants don’t.

Fines for “nuisances” like noise, overgrown lawns, and repeated calls for police assistance—which landlords are responsible for—have also been on the rise since the 1980s. Meanwhile, affordable housing has never been harder to find.

“Landlords screened out tenants who were unemployed, had housing vouchers, or [had] large families, based on unfounded assumptions that these tenants will use more water.”

Greif wanted to determine if these rising fees influenced landlords—specifically, if concerns about landlords’ ability to pay these costs caused them to crack down on renters who, the property owners thought, might run up water bills and incur nuisance fees.

As reported in City & Community, she conducted in-depth interviews with 57 owners in the Cleveland metropolitan area between May 2013 and July 2015. Nearly two-thirds had moderate to strong concerns about losing money because of the water rates; 90 percent of them brought up these fears without researchers asking them.

They described tenant water bills as “a nightmare,” “a killer,” and “a monster.”

Double penalty

A third of the landlords interviewed said they had moderate to strong worries about nuisance ordinances, particularly about receiving fines because tenants put their trash cans out too early or left them out too long.

One in four owners said that, in direct response to these costs, they changed how they did business—in ways that undermined tenants’ housing security.

“Landlords screened out tenants who were unemployed, had housing vouchers, or [had] large families, based on unfounded assumptions that these tenants will use more water,” Greif says. “This amounts to a double penalty for such tenants, who already face obstacles to securing housing because of these same characteristics.”

Some landlords evicted tenants based on water bills or nuisance violations. Others considered abandoning their properties and getting out of the housing business, which would leave even fewer affordable rentals on the market.

Policies and practices meant to support cities and make them better to live in inadvertently deepen the nation’s housing crisis by making it harder for certain populations to find and keep housing, the study concludes.

“The affordable housing crisis entails looking beyond policies that directly surround housing costs and access, and addressing those that incidentally affect landlords and their relationships with tenants,” Greif says.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development funded the study.

Source: Johns Hopkins University